Air Art Northwest
846 South Ginger Street
Cornelius, Oregon 97113

Air U.S.A./Canada:
Intl.: 1-503-359-0424

The Story of
Fine Art Prints

by Sig Unander Owner, Air Art Northwest

Today's limited-edition, fine art prints are part of an historic tradition of reproduced art on paper dating back perhaps 600 years in Europe and about 12 centuries in the Orient.

Countless generations of early artisans, most anonymous, labored to create a variety of original images which they reproduced themselves by impressing a worked block or plate on crude, durable paper sheets made from the beaten fiber of flax or tree bark. The earliest European prints were made from carved wooden blocks known as woodcuts and depicted chiefly religious themes.

In the 1400s, artists began engraving and etching metal plates, and "pulling" the plates through presses under pressure, a technique known as intaglio. This enabled the printing of more derailed black and white images, and allowed artists to copy the works of others. It was in this period that the commercial market for prints developed, stimulating the production of works for commercial, political and artistic purposes. Artists produced prints as political protest and propaganda, to sell goods, illustrate books and, increasingly, to satisfy the tastes of the burgeoning merchant class for fine artwork. By the early 1600s, mezzotint, a refinement of intaglio was developed. It allowed more subtle gradations of tone and a more photorealistic portrayal of subject matter. It was widely utilized in the reproduction of paintings until the advent of the lithography. Masters of the intaglio print included Albrecht Durer, Peter Paul Reubens, and Rembrandt van Rijn .

In 1798 the lithograph, the direct antecedent of the modern print, was invented by Bavarian actor/playwright Alois Senefelder. Looking for an inexpensive way to print copies of his plays, experiments led him to discover a way to draw on a flat, polished stone with a grease pencil, then treat the surface so that ink would adhere to certain parts of the stone, reproducing the image on a sheet of paper pressed against the stone by a metal plate. The technique, used initially to print texts and sheet music, was adopted enthusiastically by artists in the early 1800s who found it less laborious than etching in metal. Its relative speed, ease and economy made it a viable, popular medium of reproduction. There was a decline in the mid-1800s, as photography began to supplement lithography in the illustration of books and magazines and a resurgence late in the century as artists such as Henri Toulouse-Lautrec popularized the color lithograph and posteL Masters of the lithograph included Eugene Delacroix, Honore Daumier and Francisco de Goya.

Print artists originally created their works in their studios. As the state of the art evolved, many began working in collaborative facilities known as "workshops," sharing inspiration, experience and materials with fellow artists and often marketing their own work. With lithography enabling larger editions and demanding the abilities of skilled pressmen, this practice began to change, most notably in England and America in the early 1800s, as print publishing houses began to acquire plates and reproduction rights from selected artists and print and distribute print editions themselves. The most notable and successful American firm, Currier & Ives, sold many thousands of prints and created a middle-class mass market for inexpensive depictions of mid-century American life. They were the forerunners of today's fine art print publishers, selling prints wholesale to representatives, who marketed them to the public.

Before the 20th century, many fine art print editions were relatively small. Prints and original drawings were commonly collected in 'portfolios" kept in drawing rooms and parlors. These were opened and viewed from time to time, much as we might share a photo album today. They were not expensively framed and hung for decoration as is customary today, sparing them the destructive effects of light. Many print editions were personally signed by the artist, though this custom was not universal. In the early 20th century, some artists also began to sequentially number small print editions.

In this century, printmaking technology advanced rapidly. An innovation emerged that changed the industry - an advanced photographic printing method that allowed larger press runs of uniformly identical color prints of great fidelity to the original work, printed with a wide variety of faderesistant inks. Offset lithography, essentially the transfer of a photographically-reproduced image from a metal press plate to paper via rubber rollers or "blankets" became the industry standard. Now any original work - watercolor or oil painting - could be reproduced as a high-quality print edition for collectors.

It was the Greenwich Workshop and other American print publishing companies who, in the 1960s and early '70s capitalized on this development and successfully introduced and marketed "limited-edition," artist-signed, and numbered prints of original paintings by Frank Mcarthy, Tom Lovell and other western and wildlife artists. Unlike earlier manual printmaking methods where restrikes of reworked plates or stones were often made to satisfy further demand, these new editions, though larger, were now strictly limited to a single press run with the plates and color separations destroyed afterwards to prevent further reproduction. The artist would customarily inspect, sign and number the entire edition. Prints with imperfections or unsatisfactory color balance would be destroyed.

This limited-edition collector print concept proved highly successful. A mass market for affordable fine art prints of many themes developed as publishers scrambled to meet the demands of the immense, emerging "baby-boom" generation for collectable and decorative artwork. As the market grew, publishers began offering "artist's proofs" to collectors. Traditionally the proof was the first, often unfinished, impression "pulled" by the artist or printer from a block, plate or stone - a check of the quality of the work. The proof was now redefined as a small additional number of prints run off the press, selected by the artist, separately numbered and generally priced higher than the rest of the edition.

Originally created as expressions of religious faith and later used for commercial, political and artistic purposes, early prints are visual documents of the times before the advent of photography. After the camera came of age, talented artists continued to produce memorable images uncapturable on film. It is the subject matter, scarcity, and talent of the artist that makes a print collectable. It is modern technology that makes this unique form of graphic reproduction accurate and affordable. By bringing to life for us man's adventures in the air, today's aviation artists and publishers continue the venerable craft of printmaking that has been handed down through the ages.

© Copyright 1996/1997 Air Art Northwest

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